Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Early Medieval Glamorgan - An Empty Land?

Glamorgan and indeed the Vale of Glamorgan has not always been so populated and full of settlements throughout its long history. When looking at the archaeology of the Vale of Glamorgan during the long years after the end of the Roman Occupation and up until the Norman Conquest in the late eleventh century, something becomes apparant; no one seemed to have lived here during this long period of time. That though isn’t strictly true but, there is scant evidence for those who did, and certainly very little in the way of habitation evidence.

This was truly a ‘dark’ period of the history of not just the Vale of Glamorgan but the whole of Wales. One can almost imagine a wasteland of uncultivated fields with abandoned Roman field systems and crumbing Roman villas and structures, neglected since their builders left these shores. It is almost certain that after a few generations of living in pre-historic style houses (such as the grubenhuse in Saxon England), the few native people living in South Wales simply lost the skills required to even maintain the sophisticated Roman structures. Indeed, many were still standing into the high medieval period whereas, such as at Barry they were known enough to be robbed of their stone.

Roman structures such as the building at the Knap in Barry would have been standing throughout the early medieval period in South Wales.

The settlements of medieval Vale of Glamorgan seem to be a product of the post-Norman Conquest years. There is presently very limited evidence from the pre-Norman period for domestic settlements in the Vale of Glamorgan other than indirect evidence that, even though do not consist of dwellings, do hint at some sort of established community. Even so, there is not one village or hamlet from the Vale of Glamorgan that we know of from the entire span of over six hundred years after the Romans left. We do have a small amount of possible pre-Norman derived place names to consider such as Llandough, where there is also a large early medieval monastic cemetery with burials ranging from the mid seventh century up till the late tenth and early eleventh century; this is probably the largest of its kind excavated in Wales. 

The most conspicuous pre - Norman occupation evidence for the Vale of Glamorgan consists of a hand full of religious sites and, the most convincing evidence for the existence of these sites are the survival of Celtic religious stones. These archaic and enigmatic stones once acted as boundaries, memorials as well as a form of historical document and constitute one of the most important sources of archaeological information from early medieval Wales. There are a number of these stones at St Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major, Margam and St  Teilo’s Church, Methyr Mawr but interestingly, no settlement or structural evidence.

Could it be that these religious sites were not actually possessed of any actual structures and people worshiped in the open such the early Methodists used to practice during the eighteenth century? Or perhaps, again such as in Methodism or at least with John Wesley, these early Christians were visited by itinerant preachers who used these imposing markers which amalgamated Christian and Celtic iconography as a central meeting and preaching place?

These stones were ancient markers as well as constituting being a form historical document - these archaic religious stones are from Margam

Even in recent times it has been noted by the Early Medieval Wales Archaeological Research Group that for Wales as a whole ‘the number of dated sites [early medieval] remains tiny – nothing has changed. This is especially true for the Vale of Glamorgan, although there are a small number of exceptions such as the possible occupation of the Roman building at the Cold Knap in Barry suggested by radio carbon date given at c.600 – 860 AD, and the exceptional early medieval domestic site with hall and enclosure at Dinas Powys. There is also the fabled early medieval monastery of Llancarfan, although its location is unknown as well as the monastary at Llantwit Major.

There have been a few pieces of early medieval metal work discovered recently and these represent the only new evidence for the early medieval period in Glamorgan. A few recent pieces (below) were discovered by the writers' of this blog. The artefacts were made in Ireland and yet ended up in South Wales. 

Originally a part of a larger brooch, this early medieval psudo-penannular copper-alloy brooch is of a ninth to tenth century date and was made in Ireland

The pommel, of the Peterson L Type VI variety is probably Viking/Anglo-Scandinavian origin, a hybrid of both Saxon and Viking styles, and dates from the ninth to eleventh centuries

An early medieval strap-end of ninth to eleventh century date, probably made in Dublin by the Vikings

                                                 Early eleventh century coin of King Cnut

Given the wide distribution and isolation of these artefacts and that they consist of personal appendages not related to sedentary activities, it is likely Glamorgan was visited by traders or raiders who lost personal items. In England, to describe the years after the Romans left until the end of Saxon period the now unfashionable term the 'Dark Ages' was formally employed; in Wales then it was almost pitch black as England has in profusion far more settlement evidence (as well as documentary) than Wales. At this period of time in our past, the population of Glamorgan must have been tiny.

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